The Forgotten People: Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York

I’ve never gone on one of those websites that does your family tree for you, but I can understand the draw. The thought that we creatures of Apple, Walmart, Facebook, and suburbia may count kings and queens among our ancestors is exciting, or incredibly depressing if you think about it. Nations want the same thing. They create myths surrounding their origins, as if playing king of the sandbox with the rest of the world—“we were here first, we’ve always been here.” America is a young nation, so we have no King Arthur and his knights. But we do have the myth of Opportunity, and considering two centuries of almost uninterrupted immigration, one could say it’s a commodity well marketed. In Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese follows the myth to its source—New York City. It was here that Irish, Chinese, and Eastern European immigrants poured in by the boatload, and it was here they found a city as much a window into opportunity as a comic parody of that same myth.

Scorsese’s epic unfolds in the Five Points, the meeting-place of five streets in Lower Manhattan where both immigrants and “natives” were thrown together in squalor and in blood. After the death of his father, “Priest Vallon” (Liam Neeson), in a literal war between the Irish and the native gangs led by “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel-Day Lewis in usual top form), Amsterdam (Cian McCormack, later Leonardo DiCaprio) spends fifteen years an orphan in Hellgate.  Though sworn to avenge his father after his release, he finds himself a gang member back in Five Points under the protection of the very man he seeks to kill. Cutting bleeds men and pigs with equal pleasure and precision, however, so any thought of murder must also be accompanied by consideration for the tender parts of one’s own torso.

Through Amsterdam’s eyes, we see not only his own personal quest for vengeance but also the unfolding of one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. In one particularly compelling sequence, Amsterdam’s and Cutting’s respective Irish and native forces go head to head as New York bubbles over with the heat of the Draft Riots, which were aimed at overturning Lincoln’s conscription of men into the Union army. What a time it was, Scorsese tells us—a time when the army of the Union fired upon the same men they would have join them, and a time when foreign and native fought with knife and cudgel in the alleys of the city as North and South took turns facing the barrel of the cannon upon the field.


Odd loyalties were formed and broken. Though Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard Jr. of The Wire), the sole black member of one of the Five Points’ own band of thieves, once may have found acceptance among the Irish—both minorities, both hated and feared—when the riots break out, to an angry mob he is the cause of Lincoln’s war and competition for their labor. Amsterdam and love interest Jenny (Cameron Diaz) find him stretched out upon the stones of Five Points, his body lit by candlelight in a row of a hundred others nameless.

Scorsese no doubt takes some liberties with the myth of New York—though not so many as one might think. Many of the gangs depicted in the film operated throughout the 19th century, and Five Points may have been even more terrifying in real life than it was in the movie. And Hellcat Maggie, the wild-haired gangstress with the sharpened teeth and claws? Really existed.

I went walking down South Street Seaport the other day with some friends. The street carts were out selling Dippin Dots and lemonade, and there atop the quaint rows of brick houses that once would have greeted the merchants as they unloaded at port sit the shining logos of Abercrombie, cafes, and bars full of the young and the fashionable. Suspend this enchanting touristic vision for a moment, however, and imagine what this might once have been. One of many doorways onto a city of multitudes, where Americans were not yet a people but people, merely. Suspend disbelief, and you can almost imagine one of Scorsese’s young rogues leaning casually against a back alley wall, hat turned down to conceal his eyes. Imagine this, and listen to the thousand voices of the city that once were and are now forgotten, their owners’ bones beneath the very stones that now scream out in strident tones: “Dippin Dots! Get cher’ Dippin Dooots!”

Speaking of Dippin Dots… go get yourself something sweet with this coupon for free bubble tea at T-magic!


Andres Oliver, Emory University
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